The next time you're feeling grateful eating the Magical veggie burger or Glorious Caesar salad at Cafe Gratitude, thank Dreux Ellis. He's the executive chef for the Southern California outlets of the vegan restaurant chain. But he started his career as a plant-based chef long before Cafe Gratitude. Ellis served as founding chef at Le Spighe, the first vegetarian restaurant in Venice, Italy, and he spent eight years in Venice working a traditional apprenticeship at hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. Ellis took a break from testing vegan pastas to chat about how he started his career at a truck stop restaurant in Canada, and ended up making vegan Southern soul food samplers in Los Angeles.
What was your first job?
I've worked in restaurants since I was 14 1/2. My first job was in the kitchen. I started at a truck stop diner in Aldersyde, Canada. I remember peeling like five five-gallon bags of potatoes every day.
What kind of food did you grow up eating?
I was born in western Canada, so I grew up in cattle country on a farm. My parents would buy beef from the farm next door. I grew up on a fairly meat-and-potatoes diet. At one point, when I was around 19, I sort of had an awakening around animal rights and vegetarianism and became vegetarian. I went from being a vegetarian to vegan to raw vegan. Now my personal diet is sort of a mix of all that. I would say I have a high-raw, whole-foods, plant-based diet.
How did you go from Venice to Cafe Gratitude?
When I was in Italy at one point, I had heard about raw food and I started to do a little research online, because it wasn't a big thing in Venice. I heard an interview with Matthew and Terces Engelhart, the founders of Cafe Gratitude, and I was so inspired by what they were saying. I was ready for a change, so I moved back to San Francisco to work with them.
What's the most challenging dish you've made vegan?
The most complex dish I've done is the one I did for the most recent dinner menu. It's called I Am Resolved, and it's our Southern soul food sampler. So it was kind of like how do I do really good smashed candied yams and a blackened tempeh. I had to really work on this one. But I have a marinade that gives it nice complexity with the spices.
What's your idea of comfort food?
Pasta, absolutely. In any of its forms. And if I had a favorite, I love a traditional Genovese pesto. In Italy, they do it with boiled potatoes and green beans. It's amazing and I might do it here. I've already been doing tests on it.
Multiple locations at www.cafegratitude.com.